The Government does not know how many people work in colleges and its ignorance is blighting the sector, says the man whose review will shape the future of FE.
Sir Andrew Foster, former head of the Audit Commission, told colleagues on his inquiry team that the lack of accurate data makes it impossible to work out what cash is really needed to run colleges efficiently.
Publicly, Sir Andrew is treading carefully and refusing to apportion blame for problems in further education but, as his inquiry reaches its halfway mark, he is said already to be "on ministers' backs".
He is said to be appalled by the lack of clear statistics and widely-contrasting estimates of how many people are employed in colleges and related work. Estimates range from 234,000 to 282,000.
Responsibility for collecting statistics has been passed between the Department for Education and Skills to the Learning and Skills Development Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. It was even suggested that the Association of Colleges collect the data because of its responsibility for pay bargaining.
One DfES civil servant told FE Focus: "Sir Andrew could not believe the lack of clear counting of how many people work in colleges, what they do and where the money goes.
"But his concern runs deeper than just the statistics. It strikes at the heart of FE's too-often poor image and reputation."
Sir Andrew this week unveiled his progress report on the inquiry at the LSDA's summer conference in London.
He has 10 "key questions" he wants answered by the end of October, when his final report is due. In five months since the inquiry started, Sir Andrew has received more than 250 pieces of evidence from organisations in or close to FE and organised 100 interviews, eight college visits and 16 workshops.
Sir Andrew is concerned that the sector is "too vague and ill-defined".
"It needs to be made more understandable in a practical, simple way," he said. "It is not an easy sector to understand and that's one reason why it doesn't get reported on in the media."
Sir Andrew told one college principal that part of the reason for the funding problems is that FE's functions are so ill-defined.
In 1998, ministers were berated for the lack of clarity by MPs on the Commons education select committee, which called for urgent action by government to sort out the mess.
Two DfES working parties subsequently worked on the problems for two years before being wound up. Their work was farmed out, but now a third working party is being considered.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "We need action, not working parties. We need someone to take responsibility.
"Take the issue of the ratio of teaching to non-teaching staff. One report puts it at 51 to 49. Another says that it's 64 to 36."
He has called for the creation of a body with the status of the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
He said: "To fill in gaps in its knowledge, the DfES does surveys. There is the HOST survey of LSC-funded provision, the York survey of attitudes and perceptions, and data based on records from the teachers' pension scheme.
"But when you have casualised the workforce to the extent of FE, many people are not in the scheme and are missed from all other surveys. We have armies of staff teaching 350 hours a year but with no teacher training and no access to professional development.
"Statistics for FE are an incoherent mess."